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We cannot let up support for Ukraine against Putin’s cruel and illegal war

9 June 2023 Kherson, Ukraine. People evacuate after Kakhovka dam breach | (Alamy)

7 min read

If we needed reminding why standing against Vladimir Putin’s illegal invasion of Ukraine is so vital, it was provided on 6 June when the Nova Kakhovka dam, 20 miles east of the city of Kherson, collapsed.

In a single day homes were swept away in the flood waters. Families who have lived along the banks of the Dnipro for generations were uprooted. A vast landscape of wildlife and wetlands altered permanently.

This is part of the tumult and chaos inevitable in such a brutal conflict. Since February last year, Putin’s barbaric invasion of Ukraine has been characterised by undeniable and appalling events. Civilians have borne the brunt of this malice. The Russians have deliberately targeted civilian infrastructure. Their missiles have hit critical transport and power supplies, gutted hospitals, plundered crops and stolen agricultural equipment precipitating a global food crisis. 

Peace must be on Ukrainian terms

The Russians have even forcibly occupied the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant – the largest in Europe – despite knowing the undeniable, unthinkable risks of doing so. Compromising, in the words of International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) director general Rafael Grossi, “Every single one of the IAEA’s crucial seven indispensable pillars for ensuring nuclear safety and security in an armed conflict”. 

Besides this, UN and United States investigators have found that Russia has committed a litany of war crimes with reported evidence of executions, torture and sexual violence. The names of Bucha and Izium are now forever associated with indiscriminate mass murder. The ceaseless bombing of Mariupol and the indescribable attack on its drama theatre, where 1,200 civilians sought shelter under a sign reading “children”, should haunt us all.

The bare statistics paint a picture of macabre cruelty on an unimaginable scale. An estimated 23,000 Ukrainian civilians have been killed or wounded, almost eight million refugees and almost six million internally forced from their homes, and thousands of citizens sent to sinister “filtration” camps. Some 6,000 children – ranging in ages from four months to 17 years – are now being “re-educated” across Russia.

We must be clear, this is no accident. It is Russian policy. It is why president Putin has been indicted for war crimes and why we are supporting the International Criminal Court (ICC) to build its case against the Kremlin. 

We are not alone in speaking out against Russian crimes. It has been so encouraging to witness a chorus of international condemnation.

Nato, too, has rediscovered its voice. The Alliance is more solid and more determined than ever. And with the accession of Finland and soon Sweden – it is even stronger. Of course, there are still major challenges ahead. Nato must harden its deterrence and defence posture, continue to strengthen its Eastern Flank and accelerate military transformation.

Yet none of these demands is insurmountable. And the Alliance is not alone. I am struck by how nations outside Nato concluded that their interests align and they too have a role to play in defending the international order. Amidst the calamity, we have rediscovered the tremendous impact of decisive leadership. Whenever one nation has put their head above the parapet, others have swiftly followed. It is that aggregate effect that is having such a detrimental impact on Putin’s illegal war.

I am proud that the United Kingdom – galvanised by a united Parliament – has been at the forefront in its support for Ukraine.

We were the first European nation to provide Ukraine with lethal aid to help stall the Russian advance, including thousands of short and long-range missiles. The first nation to pledge main battle tanks to Ukraine, generating an unstoppable momentum with Germany then sending their Leopard 2s, the United States their Abrams, and pledges from Poland, Spain, Canada and France. Most recently we have donated Storm Shadow missiles, giving Ukraine the long range capabilities to strike Russian forces. We are now working to build an international coalition to provide Ukraine with combat air capabilities, offering support from training to procuring F-16 jets. 

The UK has also led the way on training. Since last summer Ukrainian personnel have left our shores better equipped to defend their territory. We have been joined in this extraordinary endeavour by Australia, Canada, Denmark, Finland, Sweden, Lithuania, Norway, New Zealand and the Netherlands. I had the pleasure of visiting these new recruits back in February. I feel emotional reflecting on the deeply moving discussions I had with ordinary people: stepping up to defend their right to a home, to self-determination.

UK leadership has also kept donations rolling in. Alongside Estonia, Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, representatives of Denmark, the Czech Republic, the Netherlands and Slovakia we signed the Tallinn Pledge to collectively pursue “the delivery of an unprecedented set of donations including main battle tanks, heavy artillery, air defence, ammunition, and infantry fighting vehicles to Ukraine’s defence”. Separately, our International Fund for Ukraine now stands at £520m.

The UK was not unprepared for the Russia invasion. We had been training Ukrainians in Operation Orbital since 2015 and our 2021 Integrated Review (IR) labelled Russia our principle threat. To see that threat come to fruition, against all hope, is none the less difficult. Following this brazen, brutal, and ongoing attack on democracy, we have learned three lessons. 

First, the essential role of alliances and partnerships has become apparent over the last two years. We have provided equipment, training and political support; yet through our network, we have galvanised European and global partners. The unity and strength of the international effort has proven stronger and more enduring than many predicted. Nato’s unity has held firm throughout the war in Ukraine, and its warfighting credibility has underpinned its security: not one Russian boot has entered Nato territory. 

Second, the war in Ukraine has increased the urgency of our programme of modernisation and mobilisation, in particular for those force elements most likely to be decisive in future conflicts. We know how vital it is to have credible warfighting capabilities to deter potential adversaries from engaging in conflict, and to fight and win if deterrence fails. We must remain adaptable as we act at pace – the versatility of the whole UK defence enterprise, with the flexibility to respond to changing threats and adapt to new technologies, must become its strength. 

Third, we have been reminded of the importance of making our supply chains more resilient. The conflict has exposed the vulnerabilities of a completely globalised free market. It has underlined the importance of stockpiles of munitions and other essential capability, forcing us to reconsider what capabilities we can produce on-shore or near-shore. Defence is alive to this challenge and is facing up to it.

Which is why, following the IR refresh in March, we are investing a further £5bn into defence over the next two years. This will support the defence nuclear enterprise and the delivery of AUKUS, as well as investing in our munitions stockpiles and infrastructure. Critically, the IR refresh set out the government’s long-term aspiration of reaching 2.5 per cent of GDP for our defence spend as fiscal and economic circumstances allow.

But if there is one overriding lesson to emerge from Ukraine it is this. We must remain united. Putin believes the West is weak. He imagines support for Ukraine will crumble in the face of a cost of living crisis he has stoked. As politicians and law makers it is our job to prove him wrong. We must remain steadfast in our support and peace must be on Ukrainian terms. As President Zelensky said himself to the House of Commons in February, freedom must win. 

 

Baroness Goldie, Conservative peer and defence minister

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